ON January 19 in Beijing, China, human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng woke at 7 am to walk his 13-year-old son to school. It was a morning like any other. Yu had no idea that his actions just hours earlier were about to radically change the lives of him and his family.
What was supposed to be a short stroll ended with a convoy of police vehicles, a SWAT team and a swarm of officers surrounding the pair before hustling Yu into the back of a vehicle while he resisted.
Days later, Yu was placed in Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) where detainees can be held in solitary confinement for up to six months in custom built prisons that operate outside the judicial system.
With this quick altercation, one of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders joined China’s growing army of ‘disappeared’.
Yu’s story is not uncommon. More than 320 lawyers, human rights defenders, and family members have been interrogated or detained since an unprecedented crackdown on the country’s human rights movement began over two years ago. It became known as the “709 crackdown” – a reference to the date the first arrests were made.
Many tell of torture, inhumane conditions, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement. A recent report from rights group Safeguard Defenders, detailing the brutal workings behind China’s televised forced confessions, shed light on how testimony is forcibly extracted and why so many end up changing their story following a stint in detention.
It was because of this growing prevalence of imprisonment and mounting fear for his own safety, that Yu made sure he had insurance.
Before his arrest, Yu recorded a message and trusted it to family and friends. It was just a 30-second video with a simple message, but it was enough to shed doubt and suspicion on any of the events that were to follow.
Just four hours before police descended on the lawyer and his son, Yu had published an open letter urging political reform, in which he called for Chinese President Xi Jinping to step down. After that, things moved fast.
“I never met with Yu after he was taken,” Yu’s wife Xu Yan told Asian Correspondent. “The police had no explanation at all. They even summoned me twice, and searched our home and office five times in total.”
Xu later learnt her husband had been arrested under Article 105 of China’s Criminal Law, Inciting subversion of state power, for the contents of his previously released letter. In it, he called for five reforms to China’s constitution, including the institution of multi-candidate presidential elections.
“Designating the nation’s president, as head of state, through a single party election has no meaning as an election,” he wrote, as reported by South China Morning Post.
“It has no power to win confidence from the nation, civil society, or the world’s various countries.”
The issue has always been a sensitive one in China, but has become even more so in recent years, as Xi’s efforts to become the country’s most powerful leader in a generation have included stern warnings against questioning his position as the Communist Party’s “core.”
After more than three months in RSDL, Yu was officially placed under arrest on April 20. This placed him back under the purview of the judicial system, allowing him access to his lawyers – something that was previously denied while in RSDL.
Rather than immediately reach out, as was expected by all those close to Yu, word came from his prison officers that he had chosen to fire his longstanding legal team and wished to appoint his own – likely a state-appointed lawyer. Police produced a document they claim was written by Yu, detailing his request.
This about-face alone was enough to raise suspicions among human rights defenders, but with Yu’s pre-recorded video message as evidence, concerns of wrongdoing could not be denied.
Yu produced two videos. In one, he simply states his name and proves his identity with images of his passport.
The second makes unequivocally clear that he will “never give up the right to choose my own lawyer,” and names his longstanding legal team, Liang Xiaojun and Zhang Weiyu, as the people he wants to represent him.
Asian Correspondent has seen the power of attorney documents on which Yu appoints both lawyers.
“I will never accept a lawyer appointed by the authority,” he adds.
“Unless I am tortured.”
It is this final statement in which he sets a trap for the government; a trap they have now openly walked into, says human rights activist and friend of Yu, Peter Dahlin.
“They have either faked the statement and put his name on it. Or they have, as he says, tortured him enough that he has written it himself,” Dahlin told Asian Correspondent.
It’s a common ploy to ensure detainees don’t have access to a lawyer, even when they have been arrested and awaiting trial. While the tactic has been used many times before, it is only now that concerned parties have evidence to suggest foul play.
“Before we suspected the use of torture or the statement being faked,” said Dahlin. “But in this case, because of this video and because Yu took precautions, we can more or less prove it.”
Asian Correspondent reached out to the Chinese government for comment on Yu’s case but received no response at the time of writing.
Of the hundreds of recorded RSDL cases, every one was tortured, says Dahlin, who himself was detained by Chinese authorities and forced to give a false confession on national television. It is this that makes him believe Yu wrote the statement himself under duress.
Yu knew this before he was arrested. As a lawyer, he was aware that the law would be unable to protect him once he was in custody. It is for this reason he recorded the video, which could prove to be the only protection he has.
The end of law
Recording messages similar to Yu’s is becoming widespread in a community of lawyers who know that interrogation and detention are now likely occupational hazards. By doing so, they provide doubt to the outside world of the legal validity of these forced ‘confessions’ and out of character actions.
They are acutely aware that in today’s China, this could be the only recourse they have.
“Lawyers have come to the realisation that the law has now broken down to the extent that it cannot be used anymore,” Dahlin said. “You cannot protect a client with the law; you cannot protect yourself with the law.”
“They realise that if they are taken, there is no legal safeguard that can be used. If it exists, it will be ignored. So they rely very much on taking steps to prevent this or, if it happens, to have these materials ready in the hands of friends who can release it.”
The prevalence of these ‘disappearings’ is only likely to get to get worse with the introduction of the National Supervisory Commission (NSC), a flagship in Xi’s ambitious anti-corruption drive.
Xi has already shown himself to be ferocious in his clampdown, using the anti-corruption purge to discipline or prosecute more than 1.5 million cadres for graft or disloyalty, including officials from the highest ranks of the party and military.
The NSC extends those powers of investigation to all public officials.
Amnesty International called the new system “a systemic threat to human rights” that “increases the risks of torture and forced ‘confessions’.”
Dahlin says it is “impossible to imagine that this won’t just make things worse, but significantly worse.”
In a system in which law plays no part, the only recourse Yu and his family have is to rely on international condemnation to give the government pause.
Xu Yan, Yu’s wife, implores the international community to give dues to the work that Yu has done for the people of China and speak up in his defence.
He has “lost his freedom and been tortured” for his work, Xu said, listing his achievements, which include suing the Beijing government over the city’s air pollution, representing lawyers picked up in the 709 crackdown, and his support for the Occupy Central democracy movement.
“[I] call on the international community to urge China to act according to the law, and release Yu Wensheng. And for international lawyers’ groups to speak for Yu,” Xu told us.
That’s exactly what Yu’s supporters are trying to make happen. Attempts are being made to get the EU to release a statement on Yu’s case and to drum up attention overseas. It has worked in the past, Dahlin says. Not necessarily to get a case dismissed, but at least to reduce the sentence.
With the rule of law dissolving in China, human rights lawyers realise the attention of international media and diplomatic pressure are the only tools left at their disposal. As Dahlin puts it, “the law is dead.”